On November 24, 2009, Willie Knighten, Jr. walked out of an Ohio prison after serving 12 years for a murder he did not commit. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, presented with mounting evidence of Mr. Knighten’s innocence, granted Knighten’s plea for Executive Clemency in time for Willie to spend Thanksgiving with his parents and family in their Toledo, Ohio home.
Twelve years and eight months earlier, on June 24, 1996, a drive-by shooting occurred in Toledo, Ohio. At approximately 8:30 p.m., a stolen dark blue Cadillac drove slowly past a convenience store where several people were gathered, talking. Suddenly, three shots rang out from the rear seat of the vehicle. The bullets struck two men near the entrance to the store. The man believed to be the shooter’s target sustained minor injuries to his arm, but an innocent bystander was fatally wounded. Although several people were present at the scene of the shooting, no one was able to identify any of the three men in the dark blue Cadillac.
More than five months after the shooting, no one had been arrested in connection with the incident. In early December 1996, the police received an anonymous tip identifying Willie Knighten, Jr. as the shooter. No photographs were shown to the witnesses until Knighten had been arrested and his photo and a videotape of him had been prominently featured in both the print and television media. At trial, the victim’s sister and her friend testified that Willie was the shooter, even though they had known Willie for years and told police the night of the incident that the shooter was unknown to them.
The defense waived a jury and tried the case to the judge, the Honorable William J. Skow. There was substantial evidence indicating that Willie was, as he maintained the entire time, completely innocent of the crime. Three foreign sets of finger and palm prints were found in the stolen dark blue Cadillac, and none of them matched Knighten. Two eyewitnesses testified that they saw the shooter or his arm, and Willie Knighten was not the shooter. An additional eyewitness, a friend of the deceased victim, testified that he saw the front and rear passengers in the car, and neither of those men was Willie Knighten, Jr. Finally, several people testified that Knighten was with them at a birthday party when the shooting occurred. Relying heavily on the eyewitness identification of Willie Knighten, Jr. as the shooter, Judge Skow found Knighten guilty. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
As the years passed, information circulated around the neighborhood implicating three other men—unrelated to Willie Knighten, Jr.—in the crime. The eyewitnesses who implicated Knighten confessed to their friends that they implicated him either because they had seen his photograph in the newspaper and on the news when he was arrested or because the detective who showed them the photo array indicated that he was sure Knighten was the killer. Each time new information circulated, Knighten and his parents made sure Judge Skow was made aware of it.
Twelve years later, Judge Skow was diagnosed with a terminal illness. By that time, he had been elevated to the state court of appeals. Before he died, he wrote a heartfelt letter to the Ohio Parole Board in which he indicated that he believed that he was mistaken in finding Willie Knighten, Jr. guilty of murder in 1997. He further indicated that Knighten’s case had weighed on his conscience for a number of years, and he did not want to leave this earth without informing the Board of his belief that Knighten was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he had already served 12 years in prison.
With the help of the OIP and numerous other supporters, Knighten successfully petitioned Ohio Governor Ted Strickland for an Order of Executive Clemency. Willie was released from prison two days before Thanksgiving. He gratefully returned to the home his parents have shared for many years to spend the holiday with his family and friends. Knighten, who finished high school and has completed several college courses, secured employment the very first week he was released. He continues to work with the OIP to secure a complete exoneration. According to his OIP attorney, Karla Markley Hall, “Willie has missed so many opportunities during the time he was incarcerated, I look forward to the day when he is completely exonerated, and he will no longer have to identify himself as a convicted felon. He is so bright, and his family is very loving and stable. I am sure nothing will hold him back once his record is officially cleared.”